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Sunday, June 13, 2021


As I have on various occasions observed, when it comes to changing the world it takes a great deal of effort to make even a very small change and an enormous amount of effort to make a slightly larger change. But when it comes to thinking about the world, it is no more difficult to think about everything than it is to think about just something. Consequently, philosophers tend to think about everything.

This morning as I was taking my walk at 7:15 my mind turned, as it does from time to time, to Lorenz curves and Gini coefficients. A Lorenz curve is a graphical device that can be used to represent visually the unequal distribution of income in a society. The Gini coefficient or index associated with a Lorenz curve is a numerical summation of the information portrayed in the curve. You can find a simple Wikipedia explanation of the matter here.  A Gini index ranges between zero for a society of perfectly equality and 1 for a society of perfect inequality (which is to say a society in which nobody gets anything except for one person, who gets everything.)  The larger the Gini index, the more unequal the society.


The Gini index of the American economy has risen dramatically since the 1970s, indicating a marked increase in income inequality. The Gini index of the United States is currently estimated as a bit more than .41. By comparison, the Gini indices of France and Germany are slightly above .31. Sweden, Denmark, and Finland are even less unequal than that.


I have often observed, I do not know how many times on this blog, that since I went to college in 1950, the proportion of adult Americans with a college degree has risen from 5% to roughly 33%. Fully 60% of young Americans now enroll in college, only 55% of those making it all the way to the degree (55% of 60% is 33%, of course.) So the striking increase in the proportion of the population with advanced education has gone hand-in-hand with increased income inequality. That simple observation should put paid to the fantasy that education is the solution of which inequality is the problem.


I am all in favor of eliminating the racial, ethnic, and income inequalities in the distribution of higher education in the United States (slightly more women than men have college degrees so gender inequality is not a problem), and I have in my small way done what I could to advance the elimination of those inequalities but if every quantifiable subset of the American population exhibited the same rate of successful higher educational attainment, it would do absolutely nothing to reduce the overall inequality in the distribution of income.


It was at about this point in my perambulatory musings that I stopped thinking about everything and started focusing on where my feet were going, something that is required of those of us who have Parkinson’s.


David Palmeter said...

Be careful with the gait problem, festination. My wife uses a walker to get around, but has nonetheless fallen several times with it. What happens is that when her feet get going faster, albeit with shorter and shorter steps, her momentum pushes the walker ahead and it soon scoots out from under her. If she is able to stop when it begins, and can stand upright with the walker, she can usually proceed with longer, slower steps. The key seems to be to stop as quickly as possible once it begins. There are exercises you can do that are said to help. If you aren't doing it already, you probably should carry a cane with you when you walk to help you maintain your balance if it begins.

Howie said...

Einstein also used Lorenz curves didn't he for his theory of relativity?

Ahmed Fares said...

That simple observation should put paid to the fantasy that education is the solution of which inequality is the problem.

Quotes from an older but still relevant article to that effect (bold mine):

Since 1991, the US population has done precisely what the education-focused poverty reduction people said to do. Between 1991 and 2014, we steadily reduced the share of adults in the “less than high school” and “high school” categories.

By 2014, the share of adults in the “less than high school” bin declined 9 points from 20.6% to 11.6%. The share of adults in the “high school” bin declined 6.5 points from 36% to 29.5%

Adults these days are as educated as they have ever been, but poverty is no lower than it was in 1991. This is not because the few lingering people with “less than high school” have soaked up all the poverty. Quite the contrary: poverty has simply moved up the educational scale. The poor in 2014 were the most educated poor in history.

source: Why Education Does Not Fix Poverty

Ahmed Fares said...

Further to my comment and paraphrasing Bryan Caplan:

In a world of Einsteins, Einsteins cook, clean, and take out the trash. An Einstein drives the garbage truck.

In other words, you can have too much of an investment in human capital.

s. wallerstein said...

The same thing has occurred in Chile. Lots more people going to the university, no difference in income and wealth inequality.

Lots of young people with degrees in sociology or journalism working in call centers or trying to sell you a cemetery plot by telephone. The other day I got a woman Uber driver who had done most of law school, but was too deeply in debt to finish.

The positive side is that most of those people with the sociology or psychology or journalism degrees got very leftwing in the university, as people often do and in the case of my Uber driver, very feminist too, but since unlike most conventional people who drift to the political center as they get older and become more or less successful in their middle class careers, these people, who are not economically successful in middle class terms, stay on the left and are to a great degree responsible for the swing leftwing in Chilean politics and the Chilean zeitgeist in the last 10 years.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, David. Festination is indeed a problem. When I started to develop it near the ends of my walks, I stopped walking and contacted my doctor, who put me on Sinemet, which has nicely controlled it. I tried walking with walking sticks and found that it made things worse. But I am very alert to the problem of festination and will be as careful as I can. Not a forgiving disease, alas.

Michael Froomkin said...

What is true on average will not be true for some individuals. Consider this striking photo and the accompanying story which I happened to read minutes after seeing your post.

What is more, we should not confuse the increase in societal inequality (a huge problem I don't seek to minimize) with a possible general increase in the standard of living of those in the lower part of the income scale. Both can happen at the same time -- and at least on a world-wide basis clearly have.

Again not to minimize the issue of inequality of income and especially access to capital, just to note what it covers and does not.

Achim Kriechel (A.K.) said...

During the Corona pandemic, there was another statistic that fits with the topic.The curve depicting the number of billionaires (USD) worldwide bends extremely upward in 2021.The curve depicting the number of billionaires worldwide bends extremely upward in 2021. ( A plus of 31% compared to 2020 and of 245% compared to 2008. One can observe well that the curve after each crisis (e.g. 2008 the Lehman bankruptcy) rises stronger than before the crisis. Since 2001, the world can proudly look at an increase of billion assets of 510%.

In the film "Insideman" by Spike Lee with Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer plays a billionaire who became rich by buying up the treasures of Jewish families who had to flee from the Nazis.The script puts an alleged quote from Baron de Rothschild in his mouth: "When blood flows in the streets, buy as much as you can".

If education cannot solve the problem of the unequal distribution of capital and power, it at least helps to recognize that it exists at all. Without education, the chance to change the circumstances tends to zero.

james wilson said...

It surely depends, A. K., on the nature of the education available. It also should be noted that not all educations are equal. Adam Smith knew that. Although there was little to distinguish the child who would become a street sweeper from the child who would become a philosopher, the one got an education designed to provide that minimum which would fit him for his predestined role and which would, moreover, inculcate obedience. The other would receive an education that would eventually permit a larger critical perspective on the world so that modifications beneficial to the established order might be forthcoming.

On another matter: why do so few walkers have hand brakes? I know some do; some even have seats. But so many don't. So many even seem to require one to stick one's own tennis balls on a couple of the feet.

David Palmeter said...

james wilson

We have three kinds of walkers: the two-wheel two-tennis ball variety, a four wheel with a seat, and a four wheel with handles at a high level to permit upright walking. They all have their pros and cons. The tennis ball variety is easiest and most stable, but most people don't use it properly. They push it along with the wheels rolling and the tennis balls dragging. They should lift is slightly at tilt, push it forward with the wheels, stop, secure it and then step into it. While the other two have hand brakes, they also can get their four wheels going so quickly that they get too far ahead of the person and that leads to great instability even if the brakes are applied quickly.

james wilson said...

Thanks for the clarification on walkers, David. I'm not there yet, but my apprehensions grow. jw

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Many walkers have hand breaks; that's a simple Google. I don't exactly know what the political scene is with walkers, but I can imagine that someone might want a walker without breaks because they are sick of others thinking that they can make the decision to use them or not. If you feel that your autonomy is diminishing, you might take the risk of falling on your ass to protect what you have left....

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